Story of Nelson - Edmund F. Sellar

Nelson in Chief Command in the Mediterranean—In Pursuit of the Enemy

Nelson was now in chief command of the Mediterranean squadron. Great Britain was once more waging war single-handed against the French Empire. The rest of Europe was crushed: everywhere on land the French were victors, and resistance was for the time being at an end.

Spain was a mere vassal of France; she did not indeed at this period supply her fleet, but gave to Napoleon a money tribute instead. Portugal, the ancient friend of Britain, had at the bidding of the tyrant been forced to close her ports to Nelson's ships.

Never before had Nelson been so impatient to get at the foe.

"If the Devil stands at the door," he said, we shall sail to-morrow forenoon."

So eager was he to reach the Mediterranean that having been ordered to keep the Victory  waiting to join Admiral Cornwallis off Brest, he left the ship, and with his suite got into a frigate, in which he pressed on to join the fleet, "going out in all the discomfort of a convict," as St. Vincent said, and sleeping seven or eight in a cabin, from his own account.

The French fleet were in Toulon, and off this port Nelson set himself to wait the coming out of the enemy.

On his arrival he early found an opportunity of showing his zeal and love for the honour and interests of his own service.

There were at that time several artillery-men serving on board the bomb-vessels. Some of the young officers did not like their men being made to perform other duties than those of soldiers, and were very angry at having to take their orders from naval officers. There thus arose some ill-feeling between the navy and army.

"With all content and smiles around me," Nelson wrote to Lord St. Vincent, "up start these artillery boys and set us at defiance."

"You and I are on the eve of quitting the theatre of our exploits," he adds, with a feeling that his end was near, "but we hold it due to our successors never, whilst we have a tongue to speak or hand to write, to allow the navy to be in the smallest degree injured in its discipline by our conduct."

Nelson felt that a soldier, no matter how high his rank, must, when on board ship, take his orders from a sailor. He was backed up in this by an Act of Parliament.

"It is the old history," he said, "trying to do away the Act of Parliament: but I trust they will never succeed; for when they do, farewell to our naval superiority. We should be prettily commanded." "Although my career is nearly run, yet it would embitter my future days and expiring moments to hear of our navy sacrificed to our army."

As a means to put an end to all dispute, he suggested that the navy should have a separate corps of artillery attached to them, and it is to this that we owe that splendid body of men, the Royal Marine Artillery, or "Blue Marines," as they are called in the navy.

The watch off Toulon was a long and weary one.

"I have made up my mind never to go into port till after the battle, if they make me wait a year," Nelson had said, and for almost two years did our fleet remain ready for action; nor during that time did it ever go into harbour. When, after the long months of waiting, it was called upon to pursue the enemy for four thousand miles, it was found, to quote Nelson's words, "in a perfect state of readiness to act."

This management of the fleet was really as great a triumph in many ways as his most brilliant victories had been.

The people at nearly every port were in dread of the French, and it was very difficult to get supplies, so great was their fear of rousing Napoleon's anger.

No British ships were allowed to enter Spanish ports, though from these very ports the French privateers sailed out and attacked our merchantmen.

Nelson pitied the once proud mistress of the world, who was now too weak to resist, and had no choice left but to obey the all-conquering French. "We ought," he said, "by mutual consent to be the very best friends, and both to be ever hostile to France."

At the same time, though willing to make every allowance for the miserable situation in which Spain had placed herself, he plainly let the Spaniards feel that he must be treated with respect. He had strictly observed Spain's neutrality by giving up French vessels taken within gunshot of the Spanish shore, yet from the coasts of Spain these same French vessels sailed out and attacked our ships.

Nelson said this must stop. "In whatever place the Spaniards allow the French to attack us," he told the British ambassador at Madrid, "assure them that I shall order the French to be attacked."

Meanwhile, the station off Toulon Nelson called his home. His ships, thanks to his great care, were in fairly good repair; his men were in the right fighting trim. "Let them come as soon as they please," he wrote, "I never saw a fleet together so well officered and manned."

La Touche Tréville, who had commanded at Boulogne when Nelson's attack of boats had been beaten back, was now the admiral of the French fleet.

One day, while the main body of the British fleet was out of sight, Rear-Admiral Campbell, with only three ships, appeared in the offing. Seeing this, La Touche, with every sail set, left port and bore down on the three vessels, on which, as was natural, the little squadron retired.

The new experience of pursuing, instead of being pursued, so delighted the Frenchman that he published a most boastful and quite untrue account of how he had chased Nelson and the whole British fleet.

This idle brag stung Nelson to the quick, and he promptly sent home a copy of the Victory's  log on the day in question to show what the real facts were.

"As for myself," he said, "if my character was not established by that time for not being apt to run away, it would not be worth my while to put the world right."

At the time, he wrote, "Monsieur La Touche came out with eight sail of the line and six frigates, cut a caper off Sepet, and went in again."

Two months later, when a copy of the French admiral's letter reached him, he broke out in wrath.

"You will have seen Monsieur La Touche's letter of how he chased me, and how I ran. He is a poltroon, liar, and a miscreant. I keep his letter, and, by Gad! if I take him, he shall eat  it."

In vain did Nelson try to draw his enemy out to fight by every means he could think of. The Frenchman would not walk into the trap, nor be tempted into giving battle until the appointed time came.

The dread of missing the enemy in a fog was one of Nelson's chief anxieties, and he kept thinking of his long chase of Admiral Brueys before the battle of the Nile.

"If I should miss these fellows my heart will break," he kept repeating.

"If that admiral were to cheat me out of my hopes of meeting him," he added, "it would kill me much easier than one of his balls."

The life on board ship was meanwhile a dull one; daily they cruised about, one day passing very much like another. The weather in these parts is stormy; even during the summer there was a gale almost every week, followed by two days' heavy swell. The health of the crews was, considering the life they were leading, wonderfully good, and for this they had to thank Nelson. The admiral took every care for the comfort of his men, and did his very best to secure lemons, onions, and other fresh food, without which disease must have broken out.

The patience with which our fleet bore the long watch off Toulon is, in Nelson's own words, a "record of perseverance at sea which had never been surpassed." From May 1803 to August 1805 the admiral himself was only out of his ship three times; on each of these occasions he was absent less than an hour, and was "upon the king's service," as the saying went.

The whole fleet bore the long wait patiently; the men behaved well, and all earned Nelson's thanks. The officers were not behind the men in doing their duty either. "Such a gallant set of fellows! Such a band of brothers! My heart swells at the thought of them," wrote Nelson.

In October the patience of Great Britain was tired out, and war was declared against Spain. About three months after, while the British fleet was at anchor off the coast of Sardinia, the Toulon fleet at last put to sea and joined the Spaniards. On getting this news the British fleet weighed and put to sea, while next morning the signal was made to prepare for battle.

A chase somewhat like the former pursuit of Brueys now began, stormy weather keeping pursuers and pursued apart.

After seeing that Sardinia, Naples, and Sicily were safe, as before Nelson made for Egypt. Not finding the enemy there this time, he doubled back for Malta, where news reached him that they had dispersed in a gale and put back to Toulon.

"These gentlemen are not accustomed to a Gulf of Lions gale; we have buffeted them for one and twenty months and not carried away a spar," Nelson declared with pride.

From the 21st of January till he anchored in Cagliari Bay on the 27th of February, the ships had been cleared for action, without a bulkhead up, night or day.

During this chase of the enemy and weary buffeting against foul winds, a despatch-vessel had been wrecked, a convoy had been way-laid, and the two small ships protecting it taken.

To add to these small losses, another despatch-vessel had gone ashore off Cadiz and fallen into the hands of the enemy.

The captain of the latter, Captain Layman, had earned Nelson's praise and esteem by his smartness and bravery at Copenhagen, and Nelson could not bear that a brave man should be blamed.

The admiral never turned his back upon a friend, more especially did he stick by a friend in misfortune.

"Dear Parker is my child, for I found him in distress," he had written of a captain wounded in the attack of boats at Boulogne. To this other captain in distress, the great seaman's tender heart went out, and he wrote to the Admiralty on his behalf.

"My dear Lord," he began, "give me leave to recommend Captain Layman to your kind protection; for notwithstanding the court-martial has thought him worthy of censure for his running in with the land, yet, my Lord, allow me to say that Captain Layman's misfortune was, perhaps, conceiving other people's abilities were equal to his own, which indeed very few people's are.

"Captain Layman has served with me in three ships, and I am well acquainted with his bravery, zeal, judgment, and activity; nor do I regret the loss of the Raven  compared to the value of Captain Layman's services, which are a national loss.

"You must, my dear Lord, forgive the warmth which I express for Captain Layman; but he is in adversity, and therefore has the more claim to my attention and regard.

"If I had been censured every time I have run my ship, or fleets under my command, into great danger, I should long ago have been out of the service, and never in the House of Peers.

"I am, my dear Lord, most faithfully,

"Your obedient servant,

Small wonder the whole fleet adored "Our Nel," as they called him, and who, they said, was "as brave as a lion, but as gentle as a lamb."

On the 4th of April, while bearing up for his old station, Toulon, he learnt that Villeneuve had five days previously put to sea, with eleven ships of the line, seven frigates, and two brigs.

At first he searched for them down the Mediterranean, still thinking that Egypt must be their object. At length he heard that the enemy had passed the Straits of Gibraltar, and might be half-way to Ireland or Jamaica, an attack on both of which places had been thought likely.

Beating up against adverse winds, Nelson, who said that his "good fortune had flown away," could only pass the narrow straits on the 5th of May, when a favouring wind at last sprung up.

Just before this, a Scotsman, Donald Campbell, who was at that time an admiral in the Portuguese service, came on board the Victory  with the news that the combined fleets were on their way to the West Indies.

Though the enemy were in far greater numbers than the British, the admiral started off in hot pursuit with only ten sail of the line and three frigates.

"Take you a Frenchman apiece," he told his captains, "and leave me his Spaniards" (there were six Spanish battleships). "When I haul down my colours, I expect you to do the same, and not till then."

Meanwhile Nelson was suffering the same torture of mind and spirit as when once before the enemy escaped him before the battle of the Nile.

"Oh, French fleet! French fleet!" he wrote, "if I can but once get up with you, I'll make you pay dearly for all that you have made me suffer."

By June 4 the British were at Barbadoes, where, misled by reports, they expected to find the enemy. They entered the Gulf of Paria with their ships cleared for action, only to find the enemy gone.

Coming to the rapid but, as it happened, correct decision that the enemy had returned to Europe, Nelson lost no time in sailing after them.

As going out he had been able to gain ten days on them, and they had only five days' start of him on the return to Europe, Nelson thought he would be able to come up with Villeneuve before the latter had done much harm.

For three weeks the combined fleet had the West Indies at their mercy, and as they had not attacked the islands, Nelson felt no great alarm as to what they would do in Europe.

On the 19th of June he was back again at Gibraltar, and the next day he went on shore for the first time since June 18, 1803. Thus for two years he had not had his foot on dry land.

Though he had not found the enemy, he had at least chased them out of the West Indies, which were then among Britain's most wealthy and important colonies.

Had the enemy been met, though they were in far greater numbers, Nelson had determined to attack them, come what might to his own squadron.

"Though we are but eleven to eighteen or twenty, we won't part without a battle," he kept repeating.

That this fight he had in his mind never took place was due to no fault of Nelson's. A few days later, however, Admiral Calder with fifteen ships met twenty of the enemy, and a drawn battle took place. The British admiral, though he had the best of the fight, thought it more prudent to draw off and let the enemy escape, after they had been roughly handled.

This made the people in England very angry, for the country could not but feel how different the result would have been if their beloved admiral had been in Calder's place. Nelson, they knew, would never have left the enemy, even though half his own ships had been destroyed.

Nelson's truly great spirit could not bear that his unfortunate brother admiral should be blamed.

"It most sincerely grieves me," he wrote, "that in any of the papers it should be insinuated that Lord Nelson could have done better. Who can say what will be the event of a battle? I could have fought the enemy, so did my friend Calder; but who can say that he will be more successful than another?"

On August 18 the Victory  anchored at Portsmouth and the long chase was at an end.

Nelson no sooner landed than he posted up to London, where he had much to talk about, not only with the Admiralty but with the Secretary for War.

On this visit to London the famous meeting between Nelson, "the greatest sailor since our world began," and the Duke of Wellington, the conqueror of Napoleon, "the great world's victor's victor," took place. Neither knew who the other was. They were both waiting in the anteroom of the Secretary of State. At first "the Iron Duke" found Nelson's talk trifling and silly. But when the war and the state of Europe were touched upon, then in an instant the somewhat boastful trifler vanished, and Nelson, the statesman, sailor, and saviour of his country appeared in his true colours.

Horatio Nelson


On the 2nd of September Captain Blackwood called at Merton at five in the morning. Nelson, who was already up and dressed, eagerly greeted him with the words, "I am sure you bring me news of the French and Spanish fleets, and I think I shall yet have to beat them."

On Blackwood telling him that the French squadron had arrived off Cadiz, he could scarcely conceal his joy. "Depend upon it, Blackwood," he exclaimed, "I shall yet give Mr. Villeneuve a drubbing."

All haste was made to get ready the fleet Nelson had chosen. He stuck to the Victory  as his flagship. Already a feeling of his coming death was upon him: he knew "they meant to make a dead set at the Victory,"  he told his brother.

In his private journal are found these words:—

"Friday night (Sept. 13), at half-past ten, I drove from dear, dear Merton to go to serve my king and country. May the great God, whom I adore, enable me to fulfil the expectations of my country.

"And, if it is His good pleasure that I should return, my thanks will never cease being offered up to the throne of His mercy.

"If it is His good providence to cut short my days upon earth, I bow with the greatest submission, relying that He will protect those so dear to me, whom I may leave behind! His will be done. Amen! Amen! Amen!"

Nelson had felt his reception at Court after his return from Copenhagen to be a cold one. Now, his leave-taking must have assured him of the love and admiration of a whole nation.

Vast crowds had gathered at Portsmouth to catch a glimpse of, and to bid God-speed to, the national hero.

To quote Southey: "They pressed forward to obtain sight of his face. Many were in tears, and many knelt down before him and blessed him as he passed.

"England has had many heroes, but never one who so entirely possessed the love of his fellow-countrymen as Nelson."

On the 25th the Victory  was off Lisbon, and letters were sent on shore begging that the fleet's arrival might be kept secret.

At all costs Villeneuve was to be tempted to put to sea and give battle.

"Day by day," wrote Nelson, "I am expecting the allied fleet to put to sea—every day, hour, and moment. I am convinced that you estimate, as I do, the importance of not letting those rogues escape us without a fair fight, which I pant for by day and dream of by night."

On September 28 the Victory  reached the fleet; the day after was Nelson's birthday.

The reception he met with, he declared, "caused the sweetest sensation of his life."

The officers who came on board to welcome his return—"the band of brothers," as he called them—forgot his rank as commander-in-chief, in the joy with which they greeted him.

"When I came to explain to them the 'Nelson touch,'" the admiral writes to Lady Hamilton, "it was like an electric shock. Some shed tears; all approved."

The "Nelson touch," which has passed into a saying common in the navy to this day, was the great admiral's plan of attack or conduct of war.

"The business of an English commander-in-chief"—so ran Nelson's famous order—"is first to bring an enemy's fleet to battle, on the most advantageous terms to himself (I mean that of laying his ships close on board the enemy as quickly as possible); and, secondly, to continue them there without separating until their business is decided."

"First, to lay his ships close on board the enemy; and, secondly, to continue them there." Surely this, in a few simple words, is the secret of England's naval greatness, and Nelson's own fame.

On the 19th of October Nelson was to have his longed-for wish granted.

The day previous he had noted in his diary—

"Fine weather; wind easterly: the combined fleets cannot have finer weather to put to sea."

Next morning the signal was flashed throughout the British fleet, with what feelings of joy we can well imagine—